Listening to a Patti Smith album always feels like an invitation to glimpse her roster of influences. From Horses onward, Smith has paid dues to Hendrix, Sinatra, Baudelaire, Pasolini, Van Morrison, Chris Kenner, Elvis, and, most of all, Arthur Rimbaud, the patron saint of her '70s output. Remarking on that rare quality in an artist to steal-and-tell, critic Luc Sante described Smith as "president of a fan club that had just one member but a hundred idols."
The list of idols grows longer on Smith's latest, Banga, an album smattered with allusions both academic and popular, from 15th-century painter Piero della Francesca to Amy Winehouse, The Master and Margarita to The Hunger Games. All this might suggest a mess of an album, but Banga is a surprisingly focused effort. Despite all its erudition and occasional diversions (midway through, the album offers a series of homages to a trifecta of Russian storytellers), it's really about the age-old themes of innocence and innocence lost.
Banga works best when Smith weaves those themes into quieter, more introspective numbers. On "Seneca," a spare and haunting lullaby whispered to a godson, Smith sounds positively mournful. And on "This Is the Girl," a touching elegy for the late Winehouse, Smith croons about a young woman "spirited away/Buried inside." Singing about young folk isn't exactly new ground for Smith, who's never shied away from sharing a little wisdom with the younger generation; her 1988 single "People Have the Power," after all, felt like a dose of New Left encouragement for a jaded, post-Reagan cohort. Throughout Banga, Smith seems mainly preoccupied with the world her children are inheriting. Take, for instance, her cover of Neil Young's "After the Gold Rush": Smith enlists her twentysomething son and daughter as well as a children's choir to update Young's lines for a new millennium ("Look at Mother Nature on the run in the twentieth century"). No matter how cheery those voices, the future looks grim.
That ominous tone comes across clearly on the opener "Amerigo," in which Smith adopts the perspective of a doe-eyed Amerigo Vespucci, so transfixed by the beauty and liberty of America's original inhabitants that he joins them "naked as they/Baptized in the rain of the New World." Of course, Paradise doesn't last long and soon Smith sets those utopian visions against the penultimate "Constantine's Dream," a sprawling 10 minutes of spoken word and hard-rock bombast that imagine Columbus, once witness to the new world's "beauty unspoiled," now a harbinger of the conquest that sets "all of nature aflame." Like youth, Smith reminds us, Eden is only ever temporary.
Not all of Banga is so heavy-handed though. There are moments of lightness here, as on the plucky title track and the single "April Fool," which beckons the listener to "Come…break all the rules." Banga itself doesn't exactly break many rules, but it does find Smith rejuvenated, discovering new wisdom in old myths and icons, and in her missives to the young, a renewed sense of purpose.